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China’s top research organization has suspended its use of the country’s largest academic database, causing some scholars to question whether its stranglehold on the sector might be loosened.

The Times Higher Education logo, a red T, purple H, and blue E.Several research institutes under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have pulled out of its subscription to the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) due to mounting subscription fees, local news outlet Caixin reported.

According to reports, CAS made the decision over mounting costs. In 2021, CAS paid $1.5 million to access the database, with a similar amount expected for 2022.

Academics said the reasoning behind the move—long-simmering frustrations over fees—was understandable enough. But they wondered what its knock-on effects could be in a market largely controlled by a single, powerful player. Roughly 90 percent of China’s journal articles are listed on CNKI, according to estimates.

Futao Huang, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, suggested that CNKI’s monopoly was under threat.

While he said it was “extremely difficult” to predict what could happen, a reduced role for CNKI “might open up the market to new players,” including open-access platforms, which allow readers to access papers for free.

Huang said it was plausible that an organization—potentially CAS or a consortium of leading universities, or a private company—might build a databank to replace CNKI.

Such a move could create a “much fairer environment for competition and improve the service” researchers get and help them access relevant data without paying high fees, he said.

Other academics struck a less positive note.

Lili Yang, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong, worried that until “decent competitors” emerge to rival the research giant, its monopoly in China would continue.

“This is not the first time [that] Chinese higher education institutions [have] suspend[ed] their subscription to CNKI,” she said.

Yang noted that at least six universities have temporarily suspended their subscriptions in the past 10 years, including Nanjing Normal University, Wuhan Institute of Technology and Peking University—but their suspensions have been short-lived, with the Wuhan Institute renewing its subscription in less than a month.

“In the end, these higher education institutions had to resubscribe to CNKI, as there were no alternative options,” she said, adding that CAS may be forced to follow suit.

Yang pointed out that while other similar platforms exist, including Wanfang Data, they are “less of a competitor because of their relatively limited coverage.”

But at some point, the discontent may bubble over.

“There are quite many critics of CNKI’s monopoly status in China,” she said. “Most arguments are related to the common good of having open-access research outputs, or at least with a reasonable price. Questions are also being asked about how to create open common academic platforms.”

Fei Shu, a senior researcher in the Chinese Academy of Science and Education Evaluation at Hangzhou Dianzi University, argued that “oligopoly” was a more fitting term for the country’s research database market, but he was also skeptical that a move away from its biggest player would result in a proliferation of openly accessible journal articles.

“In my perspective, some other research institutions will follow the CAS and stop [their] subscription if they cannot get a deal with CNKI,” similar to when Western sectors boycotted Elsevier in the past, he said.

“However, it has little to do with open access. In China, due to [its] censorship, OA is not favored and promoted by the government. I don’t believe that this situation will change in a short term.”

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